Dirk Wittenborn is convinced that people transform into assholes when they grow up. “I’ve gone to three therapists over the years. The first was to talk about my problem with women, the second was because I was having trouble writing a new novel, and my newest one is to figure out how to grow old gracefully. How to avoid becoming an asshole.”
Wittenborn admits that he blatantly flirted with jerkdom in his distant past: Back in the late ’70s and ’80s, he was a party boy with a self-destructive coke habit. While he was busy derailing his thriving career (he published two early novels and wrote for Saturday Night Live), Wittenborn watched many of his downtown writer and artist friends succumb to the lure of money and ambition. In 1987, Wittenborn quit drugs, only to discover that he’d caught a rare disease that calcified the sac around his heart. “It was encased in stone—I was literally hard-hearted. So they did an operation where they pried open my chest and peeled my heart like an orange. I really felt like I’d paid for the sins of my extended juvenile delinquency.”
Sitting in the gracious East Village apartment he shares with his wife and baby daughter, Wittenborn offers his life story with the practiced cadences of someone who’s told it repeatedly. Then again, it’s a startling tale, the decadence of Jerry Stahl combined with the heart-tugging health woes of Michael J. Fox. Instead of plowing it all into a memoir, though, Wittenborn overcame his writer’s block and published a third novel, Fierce People, about a 15-year-old New York City kid who penetrates the inner circle of a rich family.
It’s a sweet coming-of-age book that mutates midway through into an overheated summer beach read, complete with sex, death, money, and incest. (Not surprisingly, it’s already being turned into a film, to be directed by friend Griffin Dunne.) For inspiration Wittenborn returned to his childhood as the son of eccentric academics living on modest means in a wealthy enclave of New Jersey.
Set in 1978, Fierce People opens with Finn and his single mom, Elizabeth, living in a ratty loft on Great Jones Street. Like many children of the ’60s and ’70s, Finn has been toted around like a piece of luggage by a mother riding the waves of cultural confusion: She’s been a folksinger, a sandal maker, a real estate agent, and is now a masseuse. Wittenborn’s depiction of their relationship is funny and appropriately conflicted, with subtle shadings of resentment, affection, and shame. Elizabeth’s drug use makes her a fun but erratic roommate (“Last Thanksgiving a white rock the size of a lentil fell out of her nose and landed in the gravy lake right in the middle of her mashed potatoes”), and her active sex life is beginning to embarrass Finn. He tries not to attach visuals to the squelchy sounds that waft through the thin walls. But at 15, sex is his central preoccupation and he jerks off frequently to porn mags or photos of nude Yanomamo women (a tribe known as “the Fierce People”) in textbooks written by his famous anthropologist dad.
Finn grabs a chance to play junior anthropologist when his mom takes a job with billionaire Ogden Osbourne, who invites them to live on his vast estate. While Elizabeth sets herself a rigorous course of yoga and AA meetings, Finn insinuates himself into the privileged lives of Osbourne’s grandchildren. “In the wilds of New Jersey I had found a tribe as strange, cruel and unlovable as the Yanomamo,” says Finn. “I was grotesquely fascinated.” This WASPy tribe has its own jargon, rituals, and punishments (one girl refers to the Outward Bound program as a “gulag for rich kids”)—and lots of secrets.
Wittenborn says, “I never wrote about that part of my life before—growing up as the poor boy at the party, witnessing that world. But I’ve always thought of the very wealthy as a tribe. They have unspoken rules they don’t tell you, so the rest of us have to play by rules we don’t understand. It’s like a Martian bridge game.”
He becomes very animated when he hits on the topic of class. “The overclass that exists in America keeps itself invisible. As a kid I saw how things were fixed. There are accidents and people die and nothing is done about it if your father’s in the cabinet or your name is on a product. These things almost never come to court. And yet these people need an audience. I always had a big Eddie Haskell quality. ‘Oh yes, don’t you look lovely today,’ ” he burbles obsequiously. “You get invited into their world, but you have to wonder what purpose you serve. . . . Eventually you realize that you are there for their entertainment.”
In the novel, Finn is befriended by Osbourne’s grandson Bryce and seduced by granddaughter Maya, and the two ensnare him in their creepy psychodramas. Some of the plot twists are downright excessive—rape, pyromania, etc.—and overwhelm what might have been a genuinely moving novel about adolescence. But Wittenborn is clearly having fun, as in this description of Finn and Maya’s first kiss: “What is the chivalrous thing to do after you feel up a girl with her comatose father lying next to you like a big root vegetable? . . . The magic of the moment could not be easily recapped.”
This mixture of registers makes Fierce People a charming but oddball book. Sweeping the graying hair from his forehead, Wittenborn says, “That’s what life is like—it’s sad and it’s funny. Even my memory of going to the hospital and being ripped apart is sort of comical. Right before the operation this guy wakes me up . . . and he shaves all my pubic hair off. I’m thinking, ‘A man’s touching my penis and I don’t even know if I like it or not because I’m too scared about the operation!’ And that’s what growing up is like.”
Wittenborn is currently working with his nephew on a documentary that covers some of the same ground as Fierce People: The topic is growing up rich, and his nephew happens to be a member of the Johnson and Johnson clan. (Wittenborn’s older sister married a painter from that family.) Although he’s hesitant to discuss the project, he says some of the subjects viewed his nephew as a traitor. “Others really wanted to talk, because who else are they going to talk to about this but other kids like them? The rich know they’re hated, that whenever they achieve anything people say, ‘It’s because they’re rich.’ Our whole educational system is based on making it big,” he says with a dramatic pause.”So what if you’re born big?”
Not many of us are sobbing in our boots over that dilemma. But as Wittenborn points out, missing out on the chance to dream of success is a hefty trade-off. “Reinvention is the American way,” he says with a hint of a smile. “We’re all works in progress. I certainly am.”